Donal O’Donovan was the first local winner of the West Cork Rally in 1998
By Martin Walsh
NO matter what sport, local success is hugely important and equally all absorbing. The performances of local crews are always a popular element of the West Cork Rally and winning the award for ‘Best West Cork Driver’ – nowadays sponsored by Keohane Readymix – is always hotly contested.
However, local success reached its pinnacle in 1998 when Dunmanway-born Donal O’Donovan and Drimoleague native Pat Lordan became the first West Cork crew to win the rally.
Driving a Ford Sierra Cosworth they finished a minute and seven seconds ahead of the Metro 6R4 of Welsh driver John Price and co-driver Caroline Broad.
The fact that the rally was sponsored by Keohane Readymix added to the sense of occasion. A few weeks later O’Donovan/Lordan were afforded civic reception by the Clonakilty Urban District Council.
Another first for the rally this weekend is its inclusion as a round of the British Rally Championship and before he began to reflect on his own first, O’Donovan remarked: ‘The rally deserves that. There is nothing like it, the town itself, the whole package. It’s a major event.’
Aside from O’Donovan, Ballylickey’s Denis Cronin (Subaru WRC) won the rally in 2005 when he was co-driven by Kilgarvan’s Helen O’Sullivan. They finished 16.9 seconds ahead of the Subaru WRC of Dunmanway’s Liam McCarthy and his co-driver Kieran Murphy, who went on to take the laurels in 2009 in a Toyota Corolla WRC.
O’Donovan’s thoughts then went back in time.
‘To even compete in the rally was a big thing for us and to win the class was a major achievement when we did it first in the 1300cc Escort was a dream come true. But it was beyond our wildest expectations to finance a car and be able to win the rally itself in 1998,’ he says.
‘In 1992, possibly on the back of my performance in the Cork ‘20’ a few months earlier, Frank O’Mahony approached me and we put a deal together to hire a Group N Ford Sierra from Kenny McKinstry, who was just starting out his rally hire business.
‘I think we were one of the first to hire. We had no test really and I suppose, reflecting on it now, we were ill prepared. The Sierra was so different to the Escort. You didn’t realise that you were travelling at such speed. We were lying third overall with the car but a driveshaft broke on one of the stages out near Leap.’
For a number of years O’Donovan didn’t compete in West Cork. However, a switch, following a brief tenure with a Group A Sierra, to a Sierra 4x4 Sierra Cosworth, an ex-Enda Nolan car, changed that sequence and actually led to an outing in the Circuit of Ireland even if there was a severe lack of seat time.
The expression shoestring budget was probably very apt but even in such circumstances, O’Donovan, who was regarded as a unique talent, showed his qualities as he harnessed left-hand drive and four-wheel drive with aplomb. It was also significant that the team around him had identified the sources of niggling problems that stymied their progress on the Circuit the previous year.
The return of Dublin-based co-driver Pat Lordan allied to a sponsorship deal with OKI ramped up the bid for West Cork. In terms of sponsorship, Jimmy Barry Motors and Hayes’ Caravans were also key.
Reliability is so important in rallying and having got through the opening stages and actually leading the rally, O’Donovan was able to concentrate on the job at hand rather than being deflected by worrying about niggling issues.
He held second after the opening stage where John Price (Metro 6R4) set the pace, but a few fastest times saw O’Donovan move into the lead and take control. At the overnight halt he led the Escort Cosworth of James (Jim) Harrison by 21 seconds with Price a further 15 seconds in arrears.
Meanwhile, and unknown to his rivals, O’Donovan played a very tactical move. His Sierra had a clutch issue and the Dunmanway native let the word out that he had changed the offending unit so as to put his rivals off the scent. In fact, there was no clutch change as there was a potential risk of incurring time penalties.
Setting ten fastest stage times on the 15 stages that were run, O’Donovan claimed a famous victory with Price second after Harrison crashed his Escort on the final stage.
Returning to Clonakilty as rally winner O’Donovan, not one to seek the limelight – another trait in the comparison with the legendary Billy Coleman – had no option only to accept the accolades that were about to descend on him.
Even now he remains uniquely modest and honest.
‘It was a massive achievement for what we had, not just for me, but for Pat and all the lads. I suppose the first local winners was always going to be a major moment and we were lucky enough it was us. The whole place was talking about it and you know, to this day, people, some that I wouldn’t know, still bring it up in conversation. The civic reception afforded to us by the Clonakilty UDC was very nice. It’s still amazing really.’
A double winner of the Fastnet Rally and a few other events and a former European Police Rally champion, the West Cork Rally victory is the highlight of O’Donovan’s rally career.
‘I suppose it ticks all the boxes. It’s not easy to win the West Cork. It never was. Never is. For instance, Frank O’Mahony led it so many times and, unfortunately, never won it.’
Remarkably, O’Donovan competed in Clonakilty on only around seven occasions. In the early years he had some great class battles with Stephen Price, the son of Welsh ace John Price.
As for regrets, probably like Frank Sinatra, O’Donovan has had a few, but one in particular – not winning the 2006 event when his Group A Toyota Celica ST205 had an intermittent issue with the cooling system. He had to be content with second, 35.5 seconds behind the Subaru WRC of Welshman Melvyn Evans. But that 1998 win will never be forgotten. That was a real first.
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